Pirkei Avot is commonly translated as Ethics of Our Fathers because many of its statements focus on ethical behavior. For those striving to be ethical, “Nittai the Arbelite says: Keep far from an evil neighbor, do not associate with a wicked man, and do not abandon the belief in retribution” (1:7).
Let’s take a closer look at these suggestions:
“Keep far away from an evil neighbor.” When a person is looking for a place to live, it is important to know more than just whether the house or apartment is nice, or structurally sound. “Location, location, location” from an ethical perspective does not mean an easy commute or a good school district, but rather living near upstanding neighbors.
Why keep far away from evil neighbors? Firstly, so that we will not be influenced to follow in their evil ways. More subtly, however, is because the negative feelings that develop due to bad neighbor experiences can have deleterious effect on one’s own character (anger, being judgmental, holding a grudge, etc.)
“Do not befriend a wicked person.” While this appears to be a reiteration of the first warning, its slight difference in nuance is significant. No matter how much we would like to, we cannot always choose our neighbors, our co-workers or even family members. We do not, however, need to be close to people who do not share our ethical goals.
“Do not abandon the belief in retribution.” At first glance, this may seem unconnected, but when one watches evil people who seemingly get away with behaving unethically, it is important to remember that one of the basic tenants of Jewish belief is reward and punishment. Ultimately, whether in this world or the world to come, the scales of justice are balanced.
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